Students at Anchorage’s Lumen Christi High School learn to give of their personal time and energy early on. By eighth grade, they’ve volunteered at Bean’s Cafe serving the homeless. By freshman year, they’ve gathered and wrapped Christmas gifts from a list of needed items for the Brother Francis Shelter. By the time they are seniors, students know firsthand what it means to serve others in need.
At the Brother Francis Shelter on a snowy day before Christmas, Clara Williams, the shelter’s community engagement liaison, asked the assembled ninth graders how many of them had already been to Bean’s or the Brother Francis Shelter. More than half of the 13 students raised their hands.
Williams was impressed.
“We see a lot of young teens frequently show up in groups and with their families,” she said, which exposes them to volunteering at young ages.
As the Anchorage Archdiocese celebrates Catholic Schools Week, a unique education is on display that seeks to prepare students through rigorous academic standards and a lifestyle that goes beyond mere selfish concerns and stretches to the larger community’s well being, said Father Tom Lilly, pastor of St. Benedict’s Church and a part-time teacher at the school.
Lumen is part of the mission at St. Benedict Church, located on Jewel Lake Road. Principal Brian Ross leads the 70 students in grades seven through 12th. The school can handle 85 to 90 students comfortably, meaning it has room to grow. About 70 percent of those students are Catholic. The other 30 percent come from different faith backgrounds, including Later-Day Saints and various Protestant communities.
The school’s staff mirrors the student body. Not all are practicing Catholics, Father Lilly said.
But the Catholic tradition of quality education draws teachers and students alike.
“They are here for the education,” Ross said of his students. “We have the same graduation requirements as the Anchorage School District. They must complete 22 1/2 credits in math, science, social studies and English — everything other high schools in the district require.”
The difference is the added philosophy and theology courses. One is a college-level bioethics course taught by Father Lilly. Medical advancements offer new ways to create and prolong life that results in new moral dilemmas.
“We discuss the beginning and end-of-life issues, the science of what is possible today,” Father Lilly said. “Just because we can do something with embryonic stem cells, for example, should we do it? What are the questions and ramifications?”
Science/math teacher, Alison Craig, teaches science segments on cloning and DNA. Father Robert Whitney, parochial vicar at St. Benedict’s, leads courses in theology that impart what the Catholic faith taught over the centuries for a historic understanding.
Exploring the larger issues allows graduating seniors to grapple with larger existential questions that connect a lot of life’s intellectual and spiritual dots, Father Lilly explained.
Lumen is actually rooted in a much older Alaska school, one established by the Jesuit order in 1956 at Glenallen — the Copper Valley School. It closed in 1971, but the school’s alumni decided to revive the academic philosophy by establishing the Lumen Christi in 1996. It started with 30 students in a building across from Anchorage’s old Fireweed Theatre. In 2000, the school moved from Fireweed to St. Benedict’s. A few years later, the church raised money to build the $2.4 million gym, a source of pride and a place of many championship games since. Tuition is $7,000 a year for junior high and $7,500 a year for high school students.
“No one is turned away if they can’t afford tuition. Cost should never be a factor,” Ross said. “We have a number of generous donors who make it possible to offer scholarships. I think a lot of parents really appreciate the education we offer, the student-to-staff ratio of 12-1 or 16-1, as opposed to the Anchorage School District where I taught at Bartlett High School and we had 30-35 students per teacher.”
Ross, like many of his students, is an alumnus of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Catholic elementary school in Anchorage. Father Lilly said the school was delighted to “hire one of our own” as principal two years ago.
The 12 other teachers and staff arrive from diverse backgrounds, and most hold advanced degrees.
Each day students have the option to attend Mass prior to school, but the only required Mass is celebrated on Thursdays at 9 a.m.
Some students signed up for “dual enrollment” with other Anchorage high schools. Basketball is a big deal at Lumen, where teams from throughout the state compete in championships. Additionally, swimming and hockey teams at nearby Dimond High School offer additional team sports opportunities for Lumen students.
When the 7.0 earthquake struck on Nov. 30, the school was poised to host a 10-team dodgeball tournament. But pipes broke, flooding the gym floor. It took several days to dry out the gym. Other than that the earthquake caused a little cosmetic damage.
Frankie Locke, a ninth grader, said she’s known nothing but a Catholic education. She began as a kindergartner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and moved on to Lumen Christi at seventh grade.
“But a lot of the students who attended with me aren’t Catholic,” Locke said. “I think they appreciate the morals that come with the education.” She’s heard of the troubles at Anchorage’s high schools such as large classes and bullying. “I would rather have this kind of education,” she said.
Sabrina Warren attended public school through eighth grade.
“I don’t miss the bullying,” she said. “What I really like is that the smaller class sizes are more focused on the individual.”